Big Girls Don’t Cry – the masculinisation of female politicians

The disproportionate representation of women in the political sphere is widely recognized, and their exclusion from access to power often noted. There are currently only 22 female world leaders in power, and amongst the world’s 10 most populous countries only five – India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – have at some point in their history had a female political leader. Amongst women currently in office, several represent their country’s first elected female leader: Angela Merkel of Germany, Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark, Joyce Banda of Malawi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Park Geun-hye of South Korea, Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago.

Female politicians are often criticised in ways uniquely applicable to women. Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India, was referred to as Gungi Gudiya, which means ‘Mute Doll’, and Richard Nixon described her as an ‘old witch’. Merkel has been described as a ‘black widow spider’ and Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, was routinely referred to as both a ‘witch’ and a ‘man’s bitch’, gender-specific insults which would not have been levelled at male politicians. Less mentioned than this female under-representation and sexism, however, is the global trend that sees female political leaders display less sensitivity and emotion than their male counterparts in order to avoid exhibiting those stereotypical signs of femininity associated with weakness and irrationality. This double standard has become more pronounced as a result of the increasingly intense media focus upon the personalities and personal lives of our political leaders, and the greater acceptance of male displays of emotion.

John F. Kennedy once said, ‘I’m always rather nervous about how you talk about women who are active in politics, whether they want to be talked about as women or as politicians.’ Viewing these two roles as mutually exclusive stretches back to Queen Elizabeth I’s proclamation, ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king’, which thereby equated femininity with incapacity, and masculinity with hegemony. The ‘Iron Lady’ epithet has perpetuated this tradition, coined most famously for Margaret Thatcher, and applied numerously to other female heads of government including Benazir Bhutto, Joyce Banda, and Indira Gandhi. Golda Meir, the first female Prime Minister of Israel, was described as an Iron Lady years before Thatcher and, tellingly, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once called Meir ‘the only man in the Cabinet.’ While the term is defined simply as a ‘strong-willed woman’, the implication is that an Iron Lady absorbs or imitates a typically masculine style of leadership. This term implies that strength, inflexibility, and aggression are traits inherently unnatural to the female character: no parallel ‘Iron Gentleman’ exists in political commentary.

Julia Gillard, another so-called Iron Lady, has referred to the need to suppress visible emotional reactions, and stated ‘You’ve just got to be a pretty hard bastard to get it done.’ In her first public appearance since her resignation in June 2013 she said that one of her strongest motivations when she left office was not to allow her critics the pleasure of seeing her publicly cry. Thatcher herself only teared up once she was in her car and leaving Downing Street for the last time. Hillary Clinton’s teary eyes mid-interview in New Hampshire during the 2008 campaign trail for the Democratic presidential nomination led to a biting article in the New York Times entitled, ‘Can Hillary cry her way back to the White House?’ Previously derided for her supposed quasi-androgyny, Clinton was now mocked as ‘the heroine of a Lifetime movie’, and the article questioned, ‘is this how she’ll talk to Kim Jong-il?’ Immediately critics thus equated her tears with manipulation, female melodrama, and political limitation.

Yet public tears are becoming increasingly common among male politicians. While Edmund Muskie’s presidential nomination campaign was ruined in 1972 when he broke down in tears in response to newspaper criticisms of his wife, Barack Obama’s tears while thanking his campaign staff following his re-election in 2012 went uncriticised. Clinton discussed this double standard on an interview with Access Hollywood. ‘If you get too emotional, that undercuts you,’ she said. ‘A man can cry; we know that. Lots of our leaders have cried. But a woman, it’s a different kind of dynamic.’ This dynamic is aptly illustrated by the accusations of fakery that were directed at Yingluck Shinawatra when she welled up on national television last December while pleading with street protesters to go back to their homes.

An alternative model of leadership does exist that embraces and accentuates womanhood rather than replacing it with supposedly masculine characteristics. This is the ‘Mother of the Nation’ model, rooted in stereotypically feminine traits and emphasising gentleness, cooperation, and empathy. Examples of women who have adopted the mother model include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president, who has been called ‘Ma Ellen’, and even Merkel, who has been nicknamed ‘Mutti’ by the German press. Corazon Aquino, the first female president of the Philippines, was also regularly described as ‘the mother of democracy’. During her unsuccessful bid for the French presidency, Ségolène Royal was named ‘Dame or Madone of the Poitou’ by the French press, and campaign polls found her strengths were honesty and understanding. Yet they also showed that Royal trailed behind her competitor Nicolas Sarkozy when it came to ‘being presidential’, which suggests that female politicians must choose between being characterised as either compassionate or competent.

Not only do we need to recognize that tears and visible emotions are not necessarily signs of weakness, we need to stop recognizing these traits as typically feminine. Male leaders have shown that they can be sensitive, and female leaders have shown that they can be hard and unrelenting. Indira Gandhi stated, ‘As a prime minister, I am not a woman. I am a human being.’ To deny her femaleness is not to claim her maleness, but rather to ignore the issue of gender altogether. Gandhi refused to look at gender in binary terms, allowing for a spectrum of human behaviour and emotion regardless of X or Y chromosome. If we recognise politicians merely as human beings without a gender bias perhaps the balance of representation would ultimately become less skewed, ensuring a far more secure democratic legitimacy.